I just finished reading Beautiful World, Where Are You and I am suggesting maybe changing the title into Good LGBTQIAP+ Representation, Where Are You.
Before going into my main critique of this book, I want to say that I actually enjoyed reading it (and it took me under two days to finish it) and that I loved Rooney’s writing style.
The book is about Alice and Eileen, two adult women that are best friends. Alice is a successful published author – she has published two books, just like Sally Rooney before writing this one and it feels at times that the character is the writer’s way of expressing her own views, experiences and struggles as a writer. Eileen works at a literary magazine and is nowhere near as successful as Alice, but that doesn’t stop them from being very close. The book starts when Alice moves to a new house in the countryside for a while and it alternates chapters in which we can read the emails the two friends send to each other regularly – in which they express their worries about society (touching concepts such as class, capitalism in decay, socialism), about art, beauty, and their more intimate experiences and questions – and narrative chapters in which we see the two navigate their almost-relationships with Felix, a man Alice meets on Tinder, and Simon, Eileen’s childhood friend and crush. And that’s it. That’s the plot. Nothing really happens and I loved that. Even the ending is boring as hell and that didn’t really bother me. The book is very character-driven and Rooney is amazing at creating the atmosphere for those characters to be themselves, to show themselves, to be vulnerable at times, foolish and to make you like them and hate them at the same time. I don’t know if the purpose was to get us to like the characters, but I definitely didn’t. Even when I found myself feeling very close to some of Alice’s experiences, I didn’t like her, I just wanted to keep digging into her mind, her thoughts, her structure.
So, given that I loved almost everything about this book, what exactly is the issue? Both Alice and Felix express that they are not heterosexual – as far as I remember, we know that Alice is bisexual, but we don’t really know the label Felix uses, except for the fact that he is both into men and women. And that’s great, isn’t it? We love some LGBTQIAP+ representation, don’t we? Yes, we do, but this book is a prime example of how you’re not supposed to do it. The characters’ queerness has absolutely no relevance to anything in the book: Alice used to be in love with a woman, Felix texts a guy on Tinder and tries hitting on Simon, but that’s the extent of queer representation in this book. While I’m all for having people’s sexualities and gender identities just being a part of them and not the central aspect of their character, I cannot help myself from thinking this representation is performative at best and disingenuous at worst. Especially when the two relationships depicted in the book are very heteronormative and have very obvious gender roles: the men are a bit emotionally illiterate, not that in touch with their feelings; the women are maybe too emotional, even unstable; Alice falls in love first, Felix is much slower to express such feelings; Eileen is the damsel in distress, the princess, Simon is the masculine man, the protector, the saviour.
In the case of Eileen and Simon, there is an attempt at deconstructing the dynamics they have, but it’s quite shallow and it doesn’t even begin to understand how gender roles play an important role in it – it’s discussed as if these are just individual features of the characters and not a systemic way in which AFAB and AMAB people are being brainwashed to think that’s how they need to act.
Alice and Felix are a different thing. This is not bi-erasure – bi people dating people at the other end of the gender spectrum does not make them straight and this is not something anyone is allowed to say (like for real, this is ban-worthy behaviour). However, exactly because bi people stay bi in all their relationships, there is always some queerness there. As a pan person myself, I can never really shed this identity, all my relationships are queer and I see that in the way I approach gender norms and other social constructs in all areas of a relationship. That doesn’t happen for Alice and Felix. And that disappointed me, because it would have been the kind of representation bi/pan/polysexual people rarely get and I was really excited for it. I am not sure whether Sally Rooney had the situated knowledge to write that relationship in a different way, as I know nothing about her sexuality and, while she is married to a man, I’m not going to assume anything. However, if she really wanted to include queerness in her book, there’s a lot of ways of getting the information needed to make it right, but there’s really no effort put into that.
And I think this speaks to a wider problem. Representation of LGBTQIAP+ people in media is very important, indeed. However, it’s not enough to just have characters that are queer if we do not deconstruct the cisheteronormative way in which our world and therefore the media functions. Representation is more than labels: it’s understanding, it’s authenticity, it’s depth. And we deserve to get that.